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Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA

Why Clients Smile When Talking About Trauma: Part 2

The disconnect between words and feelings.

Source: Photo: arvitalyaa/DepositPhotos
Source: Photo: arvitalyaa/DepositPhotos

Last week, I raised a point about a common occurrence that happens when clients are disclosing traumatic memories in therapy. Despite the fact that they’re sharing experiences that profoundly impact self-worth, safety, trust, boundaries, and the betrayal of secure attachment, they often talk about their trauma, abuse, or neglect while smiling or even laughing. I suggested that this disconnect between words and emotions is often representative of deeper issues that need to be gently identified, unpacked, and addressed in session. Here are some additional possibilities to pursue:

Smiling is a way to fend off compassion or empathy from a therapist.
When clients disclose something tragic without the appropriate affect, the strong message to therapists is, “Don’t take my pain seriously.” This can be a conscious or unconscious attempt to stave off compassionate responses that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable to survivors. This is particularly true for survivors who were bereft of empathy and comfort in childhood. Kind words can be misconstrued as “pity,” create suspicion and call into question therapists’ deeper motives, or leave clients feeling too vulnerable.

Laughing says their trauma is not important because they aren’t important.
Some survivors use laughter to deflect away from a deeper exploration of their experiences because they don't feel worthy of that focus. Laughing or smiling is a way to say, “Let’s move on and talk about something else.” Many survivors don't have enough ego-strength or self-esteem to trust that they merit guidance, attention, and validation.

Smiling is a way to communicate that they don't have the tools to manage “negative” emotions.
Although many clients don't openly talk about it, many of them are anxious and afraid that if their feelings come to the surface they won't know how to effectively navigate and titrate them. In this case, smiling is a creative coping strategy that unconsciously paces the work. It’s also an important reminder to therapists that their clients require more resources for affect regulation before they can move forward with trauma retrieval work.

Smiling is a way to “protect” therapists.
Many clients feel protective of their therapists’ feelings and they worry that sharing their traumatic experiences might overwhelm, frighten or disgust their therapists. By downplaying their pain they are attempting to minimize the upset they believe they are causing. Laughing while recounting something painful says, “I’m OK, you don’t have to take care of me.’ Instead, clients are actually attempting to take care of their therapists.

In my experience, when therapists invite clients to notice emotional expressions that seem out of sync with their narratives, it creates an opportunity for clients to reconnect with genuine sadness, anger, and any other legitimate feeling that trauma evokes.

What have you discovered in working with clients who smile when they share their trauma?

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

About the Author

Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA, is a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and the founder of the Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education.